Tne following piece is a true story which happened to me some time ago......
Blue lights over Baltimore
She was excited, as highway 1 carried them toward the city limits. Couldn’t wait to get there! Baltimore had been on her mind, ever since she had faithfully watched every episode of Homicide: Life in the Streets. The show had somehow ended up placing a deep love in her heart, for this town she did not know. But, that was going to change today. While she and her husband entered the beginnings of suburbia in their rented RV, a sense of returning overcame her and she breathlessly tried to see everything at once. At the same time, it reminded her that she was a stranger and a foreigner.
This was another America altogether. They lived in New Mexico, a place filled with great empty deserts and mountains, mostly devoid of humans. She loved it there but felt that it lacked the diversity of people she knew existed elsewhere in the country.
Black people were such an important part of what she considered the “American Experience” and, in New Mexico, their presence was sadly missing, as far as she was concerned.
In the past, when she mentioned her desire to see Baltimore, some of her white friends would ask:
They did not have much else to say if she enquired as to the nature of their question.
“It’s a black town and there is a lot of crime.”
This comment was usually followed by a gushing:
“But it’s a great city with wonderful museums.”
Then the conversation would move on, as if nothing else were needed to explain the lack of interest.
For her, though, this reaction only made her more intent and she thought that she wanted to see for herself what Baltimore had to offer to someone who cared to look. The man, who was the creator of Homicide, loved his city, this much was clear. To him, despite all the imperfections and conflicts, it seemed a place well worth mentioning. She had come to see what he saw.
They rolled down the street, emerged in traffic and she watched as people crossed the road, stood at street corners, or entered convenience stores, advertising beer, cigarettes and milk. There wasn’t a white person in sight. To her it was like being in another country. As block after block appeared in front of them, each one less inhabitable, she noticed a strange kind of landmark along the sidewalks. Tall lamp posts with a big blue light flashing on top. After taking a closer look, she realized that there were four cameras attached just below the blue light, pointed at the streets and side-walks below and, just underneath, she saw a sign that read: 24/7 YOU BETTER BELIEVE IT! When she told her husband what she had discovered, he reacted instantly to the message in the intended fearful way. It made her sad to see how easy it was to manipulate people. But, she was not scared by such theatrics.
She just continued watching the inner city of Baltimore, while her heart began to ache. This is unacceptable she thought. No one should have to live like that. As they continued through the remnants of former neighborhoods, with boarded up hostile buildings and lost souls on the sidewalks, she wished they could stop so she could leave the safe capsule of their vehicle. She wanted to talk with the people in the street and ask them what had happened here. It made no sense to her and she asked her husband how something like that was possible in America, today?
He could not answer her question.
Instead, he steered them onward, frightened and hoping for a turn-off that would get them back to the safety of an interstate. By now, there were blue lights on every block. The place looked deserted, except for the occasional group of young black men with hard faces and single mothers wheeling their offspring bravely toward unknown destinations.
He swore when, ahead of them, a traffic light turned red and forced him to stop the RV. A homeless-looking man started along the line of waiting cars and her husband rolled up the windows hastily, leaving only a tiny crack open. She was looking for change to give the man, who had reached them. Before he could say anything, her husband told him that nothing could be gotten from them.
The man said:
” Come on, why do you have to be like that?”
Her husband responded:
” I am too afraid. I am sorry. I don’t want to be killed.”
Before the man could answer, the green light appeared and they began to move again. She was intensely embarrassed by what had occurred and wished she could get her husband to abandon his fear, so she could get out into the street and find out what everyone there had to say about the impossible state of their city. But she understood that he could not accommodate her and touched him gently, saying:
” I am sorry it makes you feel this way.”
All of a sudden the ghetto ended. There was no warning, no transitory area to pass through, and no way for those who lived on the edge of the ghetto to cross over to the generic perfection of the houses that were now lining Highway 1.
On one side of the street the boarded up dilapidated architecture, with broken steps and front yards covered in weeds, told a silent sad tale of lost lives and livelihoods, while across the road manicured gardens showed off their abundance as if to say,:
” See here this is the American dream and you will never have it.”
It was shocking to both of them. The brutality and finality of the division left them speechless and she thought of their house back in New Mexico and the beauty of their land. She knew that from now on she would always think of Baltimore and how it could be changed from hopelessness to a new and better place, where people could live their lives in dignity instead of poverty and crime, illuminated by those damn blue scary lights. She had some ideas and decided one day soon she would be back. There was much to do. In her mind, she was sure that it was possible because the way things had been allowed to become was truly intolerable. She thought that, perhaps, she had found her American dream.
© Corinne Wesley